Dead Before Dying, by Deon Meyer

translated by Madeline van Biljon.

Mat Joubert, a captain in the Murder and Robbery division in the Cape Town police, has spent two years in a deep depression after the death of his wife, a fellow-officer. The novel opens as the new year of the ‘New South Africa’ begins, with a change in hierarchy in the Law and Order ministry and a new commander for the squad, Colonel Bart de Wit, and tells the story of Mat’s gradual return to life against the background of two criminal investigations and much interplay between the detectives and other characters.

The first stirrings of Mat’s rebirth occur when his neighbour’s teenage daughter attempts to seduce him at the communal New Year’s Eve barbecue. Rejecting her advances, Mat nevertheless responds to the girl, to his own surprise. Reporting to work the next day, he meets de Wit:  politically astute, well-educated, but without any field experience. De Wit is determined to make the detectives, to a man heavy smokers, drinkers and eaters, healthy and fit. He loses no time in sending Mat to a dietitian and, later, to a psychologist for grief counselling. Mat, realising how much his job means to him, feels he has little chance but to go along with these strictures, and part of the book’s charm is how he first rejects, then struggles to take the advice offered to him by these various do-gooders, in a kind of mirror of how the old country is slowly and with difficulty metamorphosing imperfectly into the new.

The book is by no means devoted to the inner psyche. It’s mainly a police procedural about some strange, apparently motiveless murders, in which a series of men is shot dead by someone shooting an ancient pistol. Mat and his colleagues are convinced that the victims must be connected, but cannot find how. At the same time, a bank robber is operating in branches of a particular bank, at first charming and then scaring the tellers into handing over wads of cash. Mat works on both investigations, attempting to head off both the intrusive media and the threat that de Wit will replace him, either because he isn’t making sufficient progress or because Mat is praised in the newspapers.  How Mat keeps on the case by dealing with his boss is an understated yet hilarious part of this novel, and I really enjoyed the way in which the relationship between the two men develops. The camaraderie and interactions between the various police colleagues are also very well done.  Endearingly, Mat himself changes through trying to develop a healthier lifestyle, both in terms of his eating, drinking and (hardest of all) smoking, but also in his attempts to cooperate with the psychologist and come to terms with the loss of his wife by remembering his childhood, particularly his relationship with his violent father.

None of these introspective elements hold up the pace of the plot of this remarkably sensitive yet action-packed novel. Mat’s interactions with the witnesses to the shooting crimes, in particular with the wife of the first victim, are genuinely touching, and his energy at pursuing all possible leads eventually produces a solution. I don’t find the solution convincing, both because it depends on a very unlikely coincidence, and because the perpetrator neither “gels” nor has what was said to be an essential skill to carry out the crimes, which is not explained. Nevertheless, this is both a convincing police procedural with a strong sense of what it is like to be in that place at that time; and is an insightful novel about the way a man’s mind works. Even though just about every female character has a tendency to fall for Mat (sometimes with very funny results), the ending, with two characters finding something in common through shared grief, is moving. 

I congratulate Deon Meyer on this excellent debut, which deservedly won France’s Grand Prix de Liittérature Policière in 2003.

Author's website (includes reviews of all his books).

Other reviews of Dead Before Dying at: Who Dunnit, The Complete Review and The Mystery site.  

My Euro Crime review of Blood Safari.

Reviews of Devil's Peak (next on my Deon Meyer reading list) at Reactions to Reading (Bernadette) and Euro Crime (Karen).

This review was first posted at Petrona in Jan 2010

This entry was posted in Africa, Books, Crime fiction, Debut, Police procedural, Psychology, Social comment, South Africa, Thriller, Translated and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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